Ukraine’s audacious pre-dawn cruise-missile strikes on Sevastopol on 13 September did more than severely damage a Russian Black Sea Fleet Improved Kilo-class submarine and a Ropucha-class amphibious landing ship and potentially put out of commission an important dry-dock complex. They reinforced a sense of the rising naval stakes in the war in Ukraine and undermined the narrative that Russia still holds a strategic advantage in those waters.
Russia sparked a new phase in the war at sea with its 17 July 2023 withdrawal from the internationally brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative. That move was accompanied by Moscow threatening to attack vessels of any nationality trading with Ukraine, reviving international concerns about the safety of shipping in the Black Sea. As if to underline its threat, Russia launched a missile and drone onslaught on Ukrainian port and storage infrastructure associated with its grain exports around Odesa and Izmail. Clearly, a key Russian aim was to strengthen the stranglehold on Ukraine’s economy and perhaps to pressure Kyiv’s Western backers.
Despite Moscow’s bombast, Russia has not been able to impose a complete blockade on Ukraine. Kyiv has developed alternative export routes, using road and rail links and the Danube River complex. Recently, ship operators have been tentatively using narrow maritime corridors that hug the territorial waters of Ukraine and NATO members Romania and Bulgaria to transport grain. But these are tenuous and only partial substitutes.
Ukraine, for its part, countered with a warning against shipping to and from Russian ports. It also demonstrated that this was not an idle threat, conducting a successful long-range attack in early August, using uninhabited surface vessels (USVs) and nearly sinking a Russian amphibious landing ship off the port of Novorossiysk. The attack may have had some effect on Moscow, deterring it from carrying through on its threat of attacks on shipping. This and the subsequent strikes have also given Kyiv successes to highlight, defusing criticism over the lack of rapid progress in its land offensive.
The Royal Navy’s top officer, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ben Key, suggested somewhat cryptically that the 13 September attacks would ‘make a difference’. The submarine that was hit, believed to be the Rostov-on-Don, was capable of land-attack cruise missile strikes against Ukrainian targets. The Black Sea Fleet’s submarine force is also particularly difficult to counter when at sea, so disabling part of it while under maintenance has been a coup. Likewise, Moscow’s amphibious shipping has been important in supporting Russia’s land forces. The vessel targeted at Sevastopol, the Minsk, is now the third of its class to be struck.
The Sevastopol attacks have underscored the precariousness of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet with potentially far-reaching implications. Beyond perhaps irreparably crippling two important naval assets, Kyiv demonstrated the vulnerability of a key base and potentially put out of action a vital maintenance facility. Those losses are doubly painful, given Turkiye’s stringent application of the strictures of the Montreux Convention that governs warship access to the Black Sea, meaning that Moscow cannot reinforce its naval presence in those waters.
The debate continues over the extent to which events in the Black Sea are changing the character of naval warfare. They are certainly highlighting both old and new vulnerabilities – from basic port security to how to handle the USV threat – which many naval operators are now keenly focused on. How matters progress from here will depend on several factors. If the onset of winter further slows the momentum of land operations, the Black Sea could become an even more strategic flank for both sides to maintain the momentum of their campaigns.
Moscow, for its part, may need to reassess what risks it is ready to take with its navy to pressure Ukraine. While using its naval assets to target vessels at sea or Ukrainian ports, agriculture or other infrastructure facilities on land may be attractive to Russia, the point may come when that risk is just too high.
Underlying all this is that a key driver of Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine was a maritime one, a historic desire to assert a dominant role in the Black Sea and thus be able to more easily deploy on the world’s oceans to reinforce its self-perception as a great power. That remains a major consideration in terms of what is at stake at sea for Moscow.